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Thursday, 15 December 2016

MASTERS OF CARTOON ART #2: Winsor McCay



Little Nemo in Slumberland 
Published in The New York Herald 
Sunday, 12 August 1906

 

The August 12, 1906, Little Nemo in Slumberland episode is Winsor McCay's masterpiece, the single most beautiful comic strip page ever.  It is a pantheistic dream, designed with the elegance and luminosity of a stained glass window.  The panel shapes work in sympathy with the characters' actions –– a wide rectangle accommodates six giant butterflies in the top panel, changing to a series of vertical shapes when Nemo and the Princess ascend the tree.  The drawing is alive with illusions of motion: the differing poses of the butterflies imply fluttery animation, and their flight to a distant tree uses dynamic perspective to lead the eye.  The point of view throughout is as mobile as if shot by a swooping camera crane in one continuous take.  The downward direction of the insects [panel 5] signals the start of the rain, enhancing the effect.  During the downpour [panel 6], McCay eliminates the usual thick Art Nouveau outlines around characters and objects, and by adding thin vertical lines he creates a diffuse, steamy summer shower of cool drops hitting hot surfaces.
The use of color is extraordinary, from the blazing red title on complimentary green, to the multihued butterfly's wings.  The volatile sky excites us, then cools us off with its constantly changing colors.  This is a peaceful world, where nature is tame and friendly –– bugs do not bite and weather is truly predictable.  A fictional metamorphosis solves problems: a stem and leaves become a railing and stairs; a tree becomes a giant umbrella.
Only the relationship between the relentlessly boyish Nemo and his 'romantic' partner, the matronly Princess, is out of sync in this leisurely, timeless utopia.  They contrast in attire, energy, and attitudes: she is confident and full of polite chatter; he is concerned for his safety, preoccupied with the mechanics of the place, and bored by his hostess and her tour of marvels.  'How long will this rain last, eh?' he asks with impatience.  Mundane reality intrudes when the gentle rain becomes an annoying sprinkle tossed by Nemo's angry father.  The dream has ended rudely and too soon, but the memory of Winsor McCay's most perfect vision will remain.

JOHN CANEMAKER
Winsor McCay: His Life and Art
© Harry N Abrams, Inc (2005) 



Click HERE to read about the life and work of US artist, illustrator and pioneering animator WINSOR McCAY and HERE to view more extraordinary panels from his legendary comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.

The lavishly illustrated biography Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (2005) by US animator and animation historian JOHN CANEMAKER is unfortunately out of print but copies are still available from used book sites like the Amazon-owned ABE Books [beware the extortionate shipping costs!]Please click HERE to view other fine books by JOHN CANEMAKER which remain in print and should be easily obtainable via your local library, bookseller or preferred online retailer.

You might also enjoy:
MASTERS OF CARTOON ART #1: Matt Groening
STUART HAMPLE Dread and Superficiality: Woody Allen as Comic Strip (2009)
GOOD GRIEF! Remembering Charles M Schulz

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